Betsy Gidwitx Reports
Report On Jewish Life In Moscow

October, 1999

The possibility exists, said Mr. Bachar, that a future for Jews might develop in Russia. Mayor Yuri Luzhkov of Moscow is friendly and helpful to the Jewish population. However, the Jewish community infrastructure requires considerable strengthening if a Jewish community is to thrive, he added.

In response to a question, Mr. Bachar acknowledged that the continuing failure of the government of Israel to appoint a new ambassador to replace Zvi Magen (who had left Moscow some months previously to become the new director of Nativ) is creating problems for Israel. The absence of an ambassador is an insult to Russia. Although a small country, Israel is very important to Russia, Mr. Bachar said, and the Russians have very high expectations for Israel.

27. Mari Dieterich is Second Secretary and Human Rights Officer in the Political Section of the Embassy of the United States in Moscow. Ms. Dieterich said that concern about Russian antisemitism had eased since the summer attacks, which included the stabbing of a Jewish activist in the Moscow Choral Synagogue. The antisemitism of Albert Makashov, the leader of the nationalist faction of the Communist Party in the Russian Duma, almost seems routine at this point, she commented. In response to a question, Ms. Dieterich acknowledged that she had not studied the impact of the Jewish oligarchs on Russian antisemitism, but Boris Berezovsky seems to be a problem.

Neo-Nazis, said Ms. Dieterich, posed a danger in some areas of Russia, but Mayor Yuri Luzhkov will not tolerate them in Moscow. They appear elsewhere during crises, such as the flare-up in hostilities in Kosovo, but they seem to have no plans, no objectives. They appear to know what they are against, she said, but not what they are for.

Commenting about indigenous Jewish organizations in Russia, Ms. Dieterich said that many, such as the Va’ad, seem to have a “counterpart in every NGO [non-government organization] in Russia.” In general, Russian NGO’s are characterized by a top-down style of leadership, inability to delegate authority, a lack of organizational skills, inadequate fundraising capacity, and inability to manage whatever funds they have. A question for almost every NGO, she said, is whether it will be able to survive its founding leadership. Many NGO founders, she continued, were heroic figures during the late Soviet period. However, dissidents or underground leaders do not necessarily possess the acumen and skills necessary to lead an organization in an open society. Because of their heroic pasts, many such individuals are honored and protected in their current posts long after they should be replaced.

28. Through Ms. Dieterich and Paul Martin, another U.S. diplomat, the writer was invited to a reception and buffet dinner at the Embassy of Sweden to meet with a four-person delegation from the Statens Invandrarverk (Swedish State Immigration Board) and the Aliens Appeals Board of Sweden.86 The delegation was investigating the extent of antisemitism in the post-Soviet successor states in view of applications for asylum in Sweden by post-Soviet Jews claiming antisemitic persecution in Russia, Belarus, and Ukraine. Their itinerary included St. Petersburg, Moscow, Minsk, and Kyiv.

The writer conferred with two of the four delegates, Barbro Uppling of the State Immigration Board and Ulf Salomonsson of the Alien Appeals Board. Both Ms. Uppling and Mr. Salomonsson are lawyers. In response to questions, they said that 50 to 60 Jews from the post-Soviet states enter Sweden illegally each year, most through Finland, which they also enter illegally. Neither of the two delegates nor officials of the Embassy of Sweden denied the existence of antisemitism in the post-Soviet states, but the conclusion among these individuals and their colleagues in Sweden is that almost all post-Soviet Jewish illegal immigrants are seeking economic opportunity, rather than political asylum. Consequently, few are permitted to stay in Sweden.

The Swedish delegates, Swedish diplomats, and the general atmosphere of the evening all seemed rather casual and light-hearted considering the usually serious issues of illegal border crossings and requests for political asylum. This ambience and the reality that Mr. Salomonsson was on his fourth fact-finding tour (and, in his pursuit of such ventures, has visited numerous cities in the post-Soviet states) led to remarks among some non-Swedes at the event that he seems to be making a mid-life career of fact-finding missions.

The writer was approached at the Embassy by Matts Feuer, a Swedish diplomat with responsibility for dealing with Russia on the question of Raoul Wallenberg.87 (Mr. Wallenberg was a Swedish diplomat in Budapest who helped save as many as 100,000 Hungarian Jews from the Nazis and was then taken prisoner by Soviet occupation forces in January 1945. The official Soviet account of his fate is that he died in a Soviet prison in 1947. However, numerous reports have surfaced of his appearance in the Soviet Union after that date.) A member of a bilateral Swedish-Russian commission established in 1990 to investigate Mr. Wallenberg’s fate, Mr. Feuer stated that the Russian government is now very forthcoming in probing this matter. The problem in reaching a definitive conclusion, said Mr. Feuer, lies with “certain elderly individuals” in Russia who could provide essential information, but will not do so. Mr. Feuer believes that these individuals are “ashamed” of their own roles in the disappearance of Mr. Wallenberg and are “fearful” of the consequences if their roles become known. It is likely, said Mr. Feuer, that the issue will never be resolved. Every theory that has been advanced about the fate of Mr. Wallenberg has some merit, said Mr. Feuer. Mr. Feuer added that a computer analysis of the records of the notorious Vladimir prison, where Mr. Wallenberg is reported by some to have been seen in the 1960s, is currently under way. It is hoped that the analysis will establish whether or not he really was incarcerated there during that time period.


29. Almost everyone with whom the writer spoke acknowledged the persistence of severe antisemitism in Russia, but most seemed inured to it. Its potency was attributed to the perceived need of many Russians to find a scapegoat during a period of economic hardship and to heated rhetoric in an ongoing election campaign. Concern was expressed about the high visibility of certain Jews in the political arena, especially those who are considered oligarchs and thus deemed responsible by many for Russian economic difficulties.

30. Although showing growth in a limited number of areas, the Russian economy remains deeply troubled. Its weakness continues to have a serious impact on the Jewish community, generating a substantial underclass of Jewish families and individuals unable to afford the necessities of life, including food, clothing, and medical care. As is often the case, the greatest burden of economic distress falls on the most vulnerable segments of society - children, handicapped individuals, and the elderly population.

31. The rate of Jewish emigration continues at a high level, reflecting economic difficulties in Russia. Related factors include perceived economic opportunities elsewhere and concern for the future of one’s children. Family reunification with individuals already abroad and antisemitism are additional causes of departure. Because emigration attracts the younger segments of the Jewish population, Jews remaining in Russia are disproportionately elderly and in need of assistance.

32. The Jews of Moscow, who constitute the most numerous Jewish population concentration in all of the post-Soviet states, lack a facility detached from religious institutions in which large and small groups could meet for social, cultural, educational, or recreational purposes. Although the Chabad Jewish community center currently under development and the planned Russian Jewish Congress Jewish community center each will include large areas for Jewish communal gatherings and smaller venues for classes and clubs, the proximity of both to synagogues may discourage the presence of those post-Soviet Jews who remain uncomfortable in religious settings. The lack of neutral Jewish space deters Jews of all ages from meeting each other, participating in Jewish communal activity, and developing a sense of community.

33. Several conditions inherent in Soviet and post-Soviet Jewish life have spawned an aliyah pool that is progressively more indifferent to Judaism and Zionism at best, alienated from Jewish and Zionist values at worst. Whereas numerous Jews who were committed to Judaism and/or Zionism departed for Israel in the early years of the current emigration, many of those who remain in the post-Soviet states express only a remote and tenuous identification with their Jewish heritage and with Zionism. A decision to settle in Israel may be based more on economic opportunism than on values related to ethnic roots. Further, the high rate of intermarriage, generally believed to be 70 to 80 percent among Soviet and post-Soviet Jews, has created a substantial non-Jewish population eligible for immigration into Israel under provisions of the Israeli Law of Return. Finally, the attraction of Israel is such that a large number of individuals with no real ties to the Jewish people are submitting fraudulent documents in support of applications for Israeli immigration rights. The writer first heard concern about these issues from rabbis in Russia (and Ukraine) in the mid-1990s and from Jewish Agency emissaries and Israeli consuls in Russia (and in Ukraine) in 1998. Only in late 1999, after the publication of several articles in the Israeli press, have government authorities in Israel publicly recognized the ramifications of immigration of such individuals.88

Accounts from Israel outline a Russian subculture that has developed among a large segment of the immigrant population, abetted by their concentration in certain areas of the country. The subculture includes church attendance and an insistence on fostering a Russian and Russian-language lifestyle at work and in social interaction. It excludes a commitment to the Jewish people and the Jewish state.

86.  Several individuals in the Swedish diplomatic representation, including the Ambassador, knew of the writer’s background in Soviet-area studies and her publications on post-Soviet Jewry.

About 50 people attended the event. Perhaps ten were post-Soviet Jews, although not all are identified with organized Jewish life in Russia, and others included Russians associated with various human rights and other non-government organizations.

87.  Aware of the writer’s activism in various spheres of Jewish life, Mr. Feuer may have presumed (correctly) an interest of the writer in the Wallenberg matter.
88.  One of the more widely cited articles is from Ha’aretz of October 25, 1999. It quotes statistics showing that in 1998 only 50.9% of post-Soviet olim were Jewish according to halakha and another 14.4 percent were Jewish according to patrilineal descent. In 1999, up to the date of publication, 46.6% were Jewish according to halakha and another 15.4 percent were Jewish according to patrilineal descent. The remaining 37.8 percent of new immigrants in 1999 qualified for immigration under the Law of Return, i.e., they were children or grandchildren of at least one Jew or were married to Jews.

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